"I'll give you this final chance to think," Tau'rin said, "I can tell you've brought all the Gems. Thirteen times we've done this, and every time it has ended the same way."
"We defeated you once," Ashen Blaze said, channeling his magic through the two Gems in his saddlebags, "It may not have ended the way I would've liked, but I know we can beat you. By the way, have you told your new girlfriend just how dangerous you are?" He turned his gaze toward Nightmare Moon. "If the stories I've heard about you are true, all you want is a little appreciation, maybe some loving worship. Tau'rin here will destroy the world, and what will that leave you with?"
Nightmare sneered at the ash-grey unicorn. "You know nothing, outsider," she said, "I have seen the truth. I shall never have the love and respect I deserve from this world, so if it must be destroyed, so be it. I and Tau'rin will simply find another more deserving of our control."
"No!" The Order-naries turned to look behind them for the source of the cry. Twilight Sparkle was glaring daggers at Nightmare Moon as the starburst gemstone in her tiara took on the glow of her horn. Around and above her stood the other five Elements of Harmony, their necklaces aglow as the six mares were surrounded in an aura of magic. "You are not even the Nightmare Moon that Celestia banished to the moon, let alone Princess Luna! Remember the lesson you learned!" Twilight closed her eyes as the magic around her grew in intensity. Nightmare Moon gasped as Twilight levitated up into the air and then opened her eyes, now glowing white from the power she was channeling. A rainbow of magic shot out from her and her friends, arcing over the heads of the amazed Order-naires and zeroing in on Nightmare Moon. The alicorn flinched and screamed as the rainbow neared… and splashed harmlessly off a black barrier that sprang up.
"Hahahaha!" Tau'rin laughed, the Amethyst in his head glowing with a nearly black light, "Foolish little ponies. You think we'll be defeated so easily, by such… lovey magic? Behold, this is true power!" Both of his Gems glowed and a trio of black lightning bolts fired toward the group.
Ash reared up and thrust his front hooves forward, creating a red-tinged barrier that spread out to cover his teammates and friends, blocking and deflecting the bolts toward a window on his right. "This is two different fights," he said, focusing his magic again, "Let's stop getting in each other's way. Order-naries, with me." He dropped back to the ground, lowered his head, and charged toward Tau'rin. Trusting their leader to have plan, Soul, Heart, and Gale followed him, the two golden-yellow ponies establishing their spirit link as they ran.
"Foals," Nightmare Moon said, preparing to answer the charge with one of her own. Ash side-stepped around her at the last second, distracting her long enough for Soul to knock her down with spirit bolt and allow him, Heart, and Gale to join Ash between the alicorn and the bull demon. Ash quickly reached his magic into Gale's saddlebag, activated the Topaz, and unleashed a blast of wind that blew Nightmare closer to the Elements of Harmony and Tau'rin and the Order-naries to the other end of the room. A wall of flames sprang up from the floor, dividing the room in half. As Twilight and friends took in this spectacle, Nightmare Moon regained her feet and glanced between the fire and the six ponies.
"Princess," Twilight said, "I know you're in there."
"Silence!" Nightmare shouted, mane swirling around her, "There is no more Princess Luna, only me!"
"We'll see about that," Applejack said, "You ok fer another try Twi?"
"I think so," Twilight said, still a little dizzy from the previous blast.
"No," Nightmare said, as Twilight began to build up power again, "You can't. I won't let you stop me again!" She transformed into a vortex of swirling night mist and flew at Twilight, intent on interrupting the spell. She struck just as the aura surrounded the Elements again and was thrown back by the power, collapsing to the floor. "No," she said weakly as the Element Bearers floated upward and Twilight's eyes began glowing again in conjunction with the rainbow's appearance. The magic swirled around Nightmare Moon, rooting the anger and darkness out of her and sealing it away once again. With a final flare of power the spell came to an end and the seven ponies fell to the floor, momentarily exhausted from the effort. Twilight was the first to come to, followed by Rainbow, Pinkie, and then the rest. Princess Luna, smaller in size and lighter in color now that she was free of Nightmare Moon, was curled up on the floor looking pitiful.
"Princess!" Twilight exclaimed happily, running over to the purple alicorn, "Are you ok?"
Luna sniffled and avoided Twilight's gaze. "I'm so sorry," she said, "I… I don't know what came over me."
"Shh," Fluttershy said soothingly, coming over, "Don't you worry, we don't blame you. Everything will be ok now."
"No, no it won't," Luna said, "That… creature, Tau'rin. He'll destroy Equestria if he's not stopped."
"Our friends are dealing with him," Twilight said, her gaze going to the wall of flame, "But I get the feeling they'll need our help."
Being the one who'd cast the wind spell, Ashen Blaze was the only one still on his feet when it stopped, and he quickly followed it up by creating a flame barrier to prevent the two fights from coming back together. Maintaining that barrier required him to divide his attention, so he wasn't expecting to be very useful in the upcoming fight. He leaped back from a wildly shot lightning bolt from Tau'rin and proceeded to help his teammates to their feet. "Gale, try to keep your distance," he said, "Keep the Topaz as far away from him as possible. Soul, Heart, You'll have to lead the offense; I'll cover you."
"Stubborn fools," Tau'rin said, standing up, "You just don't get it; you'll never destroy me. Someday you'll be unable to maintain this-" He ducked his head just in time to avoid taking an Element Wheel to the face, and the energy disk barely missed clipping the Pearl as it spun past.
"Yeesh, that was close," Heart said with a grimace.
"Careful," Ash warned unnecessarily. Heart rolled her eyes and tried to bring the Element Wheel around for another go. Tau'rin shot the disk with a darkness bolt and it disintegrated. As Heart concentrated on forming another Wheel, Soul sent out several spirit bolts, only one of which hit Tau'rin before he could erect a barrier. Spreading his wings, Tau'rin turned the barrier into a wave of magic that Ash was barely able to deflect and then took to the air.
"The one thing I like about this form," Tau'rin said, "Is the flight. Now come on, where are the Gems? If you're so sure they're the key, use them!"
"If you insist," Ash snarled, sending a barrage of fireballs at the flying bull. Heart sent out her second Element Wheel alongside the fireballs and managed to carve a gash in Tau'rin side as he tried to dodge the fire. A few fireballs also found their mark before Tau'rin forced Ash back onto the defensive with a dark lighting strike. The fire wall wavered as Ash's stamina began to run low. Tau'rin laughed at the panting unicorn, and then noticed Gale trying to stay out of sight next to the throne dais.
"Poor little mechanic," he said mockingly, "Not so useful without your precious weapons, are you?" He laughed at Gale's defiant glare and created a vortex of darkness. "Die," he said, sending the vortex toward the earth pony.
"No!" Dropping his hold on the wall of fire, which quickly vanished without a trace, Ash threw himself between Gale and the incoming attack. He tore open his saddlebag and, fighting against the magic that tried to steal it from him, pulled out the Diamond and unleashed all the power he could get from it. The blast of light consumed Tau'rin's attack and continued upward, knocking the surprised bull demon out of the air. He landed hard on the floor and struggled to his feet, one wing hanging limp and useless.
"Give me that Gem," he growled, and Ash felt the pressure on the Diamond increase. Grunting, he pulled it toward his body and threw himself down on top of it to prevent it from reaching Tau'rin. "Give it!" Tau'rin roared, and Ash began to move as the Diamond slid across the floor. The unicorn tried to retaliate, but couldn't muster the energy for an attack while keeping his grip on the Gem. Soul Mage was preparing to fire a spirit bolt when Rainbow Dash zoomed in and delivered a fierce two-legged kick to the back of Tau'rins' head. Concentration broken, the attraction spell died and Ash was able to, tentatively, relax his hold on the Diamond.
"Hey guys," Rainbow said, pulling a tight loop to bring herself back above Tau's head, "Need a hoof or two?" Without waiting for an answer, she dropped down and caught Tau'rin in a choke-hold.
"Little wretch," Tau'rin grunted, "Get off of me!" The Gems on his head began to glow, and Soul and Ash barely managed to pull the pegasus to safety before she was fried by the lightning that arced over the bull's head.
"Stick to hit-and-run," Ash advised as he released Dash.
"Fine," she said grumpily. She flew up toward the ceiling as Tau'rin tried to decide who to go for next.
"This is becoming very annoying," he growled, "you're ponies; you shouldn't be this tough to destroy."
"They're not just ponies," said a voice behind Tau'rin. He turned to see Princess Luna hovering behind him, front legs raised high in preparation to strike, "They're friends." She brought her hooves down hard, one smashing Tau'rin's head down onto the floor and the other striking the Amethyst and taking a big chunk out of it.
"Oh no…" Heart said in absolute horror.
"Run, yes?" Soul asked, casting a glance at Ash as purple-black energy began to flow out of the damaged Gem and over Tau'rin's body. Luna backed away in horror as the bull-demon began to bellow in pain, more or less frozen by the darkness that was starting to consume him.
"We'll never make it," Ash said, "At least, not me." He put one hoof on the Diamond and screwed his eyes shut as he concentrated. A white bubble of light formed around Tau'rin, containing the energy that was starting to expand out from him. "Go!" he shouted to Luna and the Element Bearers, "Get out of here; I'll hold this in as long as I can!" He glanced to his teammates and said, "you three-" he was cut off by a resounding crack inside the bubble that briefly drowned out Tau'rin's cries. The Order-naries gaped in horror as the purple-black maelstrom inside the light barrier began to turn to a purple-grey streaked with electric blue and white.
"And there goes the Pearl," Soul said. He pulled out the Sapphire, placed it next to Ash, and stood on it, focusing his magic. A watery-blue barrier sprang up around the first barrier.
"What are you doing?" Ash asked, "Aether doesn't have an opposite. If Light can't hold it in, Water certainly won't."
"I know," Soul grunted, "but together, they're stronger." He spared enough power to reach a tendril into Ash's bag and pull out the Ruby, "And three are stronger yet." He set the Gem down and put his other hoof on it. A red barrier appeared around the chaos, which was starting to wear away at the first layer.
"I see your three and raise you another," Gale said, running over to place and activate the Topaz, creating a fourth barrier.
"And Earth makes five," Gold Heart said, adding her Gem's power.
"Guys… thanks," Ashen Blaze said. He released the Diamond for a split second and reformed his barrier around the other four. "It's been an honor to have you as my friends."
"Ash?" Rarity said worriedly. The ash-grey unicorn looked up, surprised and angry that Luna, Twilight, and the rest were still there, watching the Order-naries try to contain the energy of two destroyed Gems.
"What are you still doing here?" he exclaimed, "I said run!" He wanted to sat more, to explain that this containment was temporary, that the energy would destroy at least part of the castle before it dissipated, that he wanted as few causalities as possible, and the hope that those ponies out in the hallways were mobile again. He couldn't spare the effort though- his barrier was the most important, since it was holding the others in place and was the only one with an element that could reliably reduce the power of the chaos it was holding at bay. He didn't even take a moment to see if his instructions were being followed.
After about three minutes or so, the light suddenly went out of the Sapphire and the innermost barrier collapsed. Before Soul could react, the blue Gem slipped out from under his hoof and flew toward the roiling, Aether-charged, screaming darkness, moving through the barriers like they didn't exist and being swallowed up by the chaos. "Oh, you have got to be skvetchte kidding!" Ash exclaimed. To everypony's surprise, however, nothing changed about the mass except for it expanding to crash against the next barrier. A few minutes later that barrier collapsed as well and the Ruby was torn from Soul's grip to be absorbed to no visible effect.
"What… why?" Soul asked, flabbergasted. He sat back for a minute before slowly making his way away from the group. Gale's barrier lasted for another five minutes and Heart's held up for six, but finally Ash was left alone to hold back the violent storm with the Diamond, the last Gem still intact.
Soul approached Ash, who was visibly shaking with the effort of maintaining his spell, and tried to touch the Diamond and lend his strength. Ash brushed him away, telling him to leave in a strained voice. "Minimize… casualties," he panted. His back legs gave out and the barrier began to waver. Growling, Ash tried to coax more power into the barrier, and then collapsed. The bubble of light thinned and stretched as the darkness began to break out, and then came to a stop as an aura of magic surrounded the bubble followed by the swirling rainbow of Harmony magic. Ash and Soul looked to see Princess Luna and the six Ponyville friends adding their power to the new barriers. Smiling, Soul reached toward the Diamond to refresh the light barrier, only to pause as the screaming from within the roiling chaos suddenly stopped. Seconds later, the darkness collapsed in on itself and vanished, leaving nothing behind except the now unnecessary barriers, which were quickly taken down as Luna relaxed her magic and the Elements of Harmony released their six bearers from the magic. The ponies stood looking at each other in silence for several moments as they caught their breath.
"Is… is that it?" Gale asked, "Is it over?"
"I… I think so," Ash said. He looked down at the Diamond and prodded it a few times before stepping down firmly and focusing his magic. The Gem didn't respond. "It's dead," he said, shocked, "All of its magic is gone."
"The other Gems are gone too," Soul said, "besides the Amethyst and Pearl, none of them reacted to being sucked into that… thing."
"They're purpose has been served," Heart said. Everyone turned to look at her, confused. "I think I understand that vision better now," she said, "The Gems and Tau'rin were linked by fate; so long as Tau'rin existed, the Gems were there as a means to stop him, if used right. Now that he's finished, there's no need for the Gems."
"So, that's it then," Ashen Blaze said, "Fourteen worlds and uncounted years, and we've finally ended the nightmare. Uh, in a manner of speaking," he added, looking at Luna.
The alicorn princess smiled at him. "I'd say that's a very appropriate way to put it," she said. She looked at Twilight and bowed her head briefly. "My sister will be quite grateful to you and your friends," she said, "As I'm sure she'll tell you once she finds her way out of the dungeon Tau'rin had me stick her in."
"Which, while appropriate, was a disappointingly uninspired location to wake up in," a kind, regal voice with a trace of humor said from the throne room door, coinciding with the flood of morning light from the eastern windows. The Order-naries's jaws dropped as everypony turned to see Princess Celestia walking into the throne room. She towered over the ponies, all of whom bowed except for Luna, who ran a short distance toward her sister before stopping and hanging her head, and Ash, who simply regarded the giant among ponies. Celestia met Ash's gaze and arched an eyebrow, but then turned her attention to her penitent little sister. "Dear Luna," she said, nuzzling the smaller alicorn's neck, "Whatever the reason for your transformation this time, I doubt it was your fault. And in any case, you're back to your old self again, and that's what matters the most." Luna looked up, smiling gratefully at her sister. "Rise, all of you," Celestia said to the ponies as she and Luna walked toward them. They obliged, and moved aside as Celestia walked straight to Ashen Blaze, whose face was virtually unreadable. "You must be Ashen Blaze," Celestia said with a hint of a smile, "Twilight has had much to say about you."
"I hope it was accurate," Ash replied neutrally.
"That remains to be seen," the Princess said, "On behalf of myself and all of Equestria, I thank you for your heroic efforts to save us."
"Feh," Ash said, "Heroic? All I've done is be stubborn and obsessive. If you want heroic, look to them," he motioned toward Twilight Sparkle and her friends, "They had no reason to follow me and my team when we showed up unannounced, and many reasons to abandon us along the way. When you get down to it, we caused as much trouble as Tau'rin, and they fixed it all."
Celestia regarded Ash for a moment, and then laughed. "As I understand it," she said, "You have nowhere to go now, and no means to get there if you did. I look forward to getting to know you and your friends better."
Ash regarded the great white alicorn for a second, and then smiled. "I'll try not to make you regret that Your Highness," he said.